Change often manifests as crisis, we lose a life we have constructed, we are stripped of who we were, the person who has this or that job, this or that relationship, and lives in this or that place. There is a golden opportunity and a power available to us during times of transition or crisis, to open to the great mystery and find new meaning and new possibilities.
Often, coping with such change will involve some grieving and difficult emotions, but as I said in relation to entering the path of recovery from addiction, the suffering of it is a great gift, in hindsight! It makes us confront ourselves in a full and courageous way, we have to. All the feelings, all the shadow elements, all of our stories and denial and resentments and fears and shames all come to the surface and need to be worked with. Change will do this to you, it stirs the depths, giving the demons a prod and a shake, and they don’t like it.
We will all experience the kinds of change that leave us breaking open and breaking down, sobbing in the shower, or turning to prayer. The most challenging times for me have been losing a loved one, whether a bereavement or divorce, when pain is like a fire.
Sometimes grief just has to burn its course through your life, there is no running from it, and the more we try the longer it takes to burn us into action. We need to face it, feel it, turn towards it and turn towards it until with time we find that turning towards it isn’t so hard. It isn’t our own particular hell, it is a part and parcel of a life which involves death, a world in which arising entails passing. As emotion burns out, wisdom and compassion are forged.
Suffering then, is a spiritual fire, and our instinct is to run or fight instead of surrendering to the transformation it demands of us. I find I work very hard at my spiritual health and recovery at times like this, and thus these times are like gold, even if I hurt at the time. I will read, and seek, talk things through, and practise as though with a fever, as though my life depends on it, and in many ways it does. Life can be a hard teacher, and it takes courage to learn some of those lessons.
I study my mind, and therefore all appearances are my texts
In times like this, if we are open and available for it, it is as if the sacred Other is whispering to us, showing us signs and synchronicities, asking us to open anew to the mysteries of life. Its language is the language of dreams, of ritual, of myth, archetype, nature signs, and the imagination. Life, and the cosmos, are incomprehensible, and times of transition can realign us with the mysterious callings of the soul, the boundless possibilities of our lives.
We need to open up to the conversation with that Other, and it doesnt matter if you call it a god or a spirit or a greater force inherent in our psyche or cosmos. Our side of the conversation can be initiated through some kind of ritual, from prayer to vision quests, mass or puja to active imagination work, or it can be as simple as opening up to it.
I find that if I am open, receptive, and suspend my views about how my spiritual life should be and what forces I do or do not believe in, then a communication opens up, which feels simultaneously more real and more magical than any other.
If the world, if life, if the energy in people and places, the powers of the elements, mother earth and father sky, nature, was teaching you, communicating to you, are you listening? What does the earth want us to do and become? Our ancestors were more connected to the world of meaning behind the random, their view was not so rational and materialist as ours.
It is as if there is a conversation that can arise if you open to it, and start listening; synchronicity, coincidental conversations, the next song on the radio, the next book you pick up, the shape of a cloud, the rush of the wind or the call of a bird. The whispers of the world can appear to guide you and hold you.
My tradition talks about spiritual receptivity, which involves an open and appreciative awareness, openness to the dharma, to the mystery, to the transcendental, and to communication with the Buddha within and without.
Shamanism talks about opening to the spirit, to our guides, to the web of life. I recently learned how to do vision quests and journeying, and I have found these very powerful and deeply exciting, but I will write about this in another post. Suffice to say that it is another way to connect with the longings of your heart, the callings of your wild soul, and to seek guidance and empowerment in order to find your gift and step into being able to offer it to the world.
The great changes in my life always herald great growth and transformation. Getting into recovery was a massive change, a complete death of all that I had become and the world I thought I knew, a world I believed I had had enough of. This was a complete rebirth, a renewal, and the birth of a completely new way of being in the world. I found meaning and purpose, and a spiritual life, and I will always be thankful for that, for that terrible fire which initiated me into a new life.
Bereavement, divorce, and the smaller losses and moves and changes, always ask the big questions of us: Who are we? What have we become? What have we lost? What must we face and change? What is the longing of our heart?
Suffering needs no great event or cataclysm to push us, it can be the slow burn of wishing your life was different, or that you were different. The aching and dull unsatisfactoriness, the seeing through of what we thought life was about, the sense that there must be something more, something beyond. Most of us are part of a machine that is on fire, a way of being in the world that has passed its time. We no longer wish to consume and buy our way into extinction. So of course there will be the pain of growth and change at a collective level, facing our situation and acknowledging our defects is never easy.
There can be a nagging sense that something has to give, that we are not living the life we were born to. For me, when I become confused or greedy for the trappings of samsara I need to unhook, unplug, and realign with mystery, with beauty, with soul, and one way is to simply go into nature, recover my connection with the real and wild world that lies beyond our constructs. Alone in nature, we see the wild in our deep psyche reflected back, the stirrings of mystery, of soul, but also the indescribable beauties of it all.
Suffering creates cycles of thought and feeling, wherein nothing feels right or good, sunshine a distant memory. It is as if I had forgotten that happiness is not to be found in the past or future, and remember where it is to be found. As if I had forgotten that the small tired voice of craving, the lust for more or better or richer, can only be offered delight and satisfaction through gratitude and appreciation. As if I had forgotten what nourishes my soul, opens me to beauty.
Times of suffering are a death of a way of life or an aspect of life that we became comfortable with, and are attached to. In a way, our dreams and our myths often try to tell us that the way we envisage self and world is too limited, too conditioned, too small, and change demands that our limited self dies, and that we open to greater possibilities. In death there is life and in life there is death, nothing can be without arising and passing, unless we are aware of what lies beyond the dance of time and space.
The breakthrough arises when we see clearly that this isn’t our personal tragedy and drama, it is the human condition, and we are blasted open to growth. Change and loss are as real a teacher as we will find, and of course change is the nature of all arisings. If we know that all is change, it is less shocking when it actually happens. Meditating on impermanence, we know deeply that all things are fleeting and momentary, from a thought to a star, we become familiar with the space in which thought and star arise and pass, the cool, open dimension of awareness which sees clinging with compassion.
We need great compassion for ourselves, and understanding when we fail to function as well as we know we can. We may disappoint ourselves, we may find ourselves raw and vulnerable and angry, tired and difficult to be around. On the other side though, if we walked through the fire, we find that great compassion is naturally, easily, spontaneously there for others.
We see the pain we know, and our response is an easy kindness and understanding which was not there before. We know how deeply the heart can break, the hells our minds can create, and we know the despair and the yearning and the longing and the crying. We can now hold others and enable them to turn towards it, as we learned to hold ourselves, for it is clear now that their heartbreak is not different, not separate, from our own.